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Harris: The Chase May Live Up To Its Name This Year

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Wednesday, September 8 2010

Jimmie Johnson watches as his crew attempts to make his car go faster at Bristol two weeks ago. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images for NASCAR)

By Mike Harris | Senior Writer

I decided to get a jump on all the stock car pundits who will be doing their Chase forecasts next week, after the regular season ends at Richmond on Saturday night.

Heading toward the 10-race Chase for the Nextel Cup championship, it looks to me like the most wide-open title race yet.

Early in the 2010 season, the serious money was on four-time reigning Cup champion Jimmie Johnson to battle it out with top contender Denny Hamlin for the championship as those two piled up the wins.

But victories for the two early favorites have come sparingly lately, and both have struggled through tough stretches since mid-season.

Still, going into the Chase opener in New Hampshire, those two are going to be on top in the points, thanks to their five wins apiece. Barring Johnson or Hamlin winning Saturday night at Richmond, each will start the postseason with a 50-point bonus – 10 for each race win – and be tied at the top of the 12-man Chase standings.

But 50 points or less isn’t a terribly daunting deficit in a 10-race stretch, especially if one of the lower-seeded drivers gets hot.

Tony Stewart, the winner Sunday night in Atlanta, is getting heated up at just the right time. The two-time champion only has 10 bonus points at the moment – thanks to his first win of the season – but everyone knows Smoke knows how to get the job done.

Kevin Harvick, aiming for his first Cup championship – and the first for team owner Richard Childress since the late Dale Earnhardt won the title in 1994 – has been Mr. Consistency this season.  He has led the points for most of the year, has three wins, a series-leading 16 top-10 finishes in the first 25 races and a determination that could carry him and his team far in the Chase.

Four-time champion Jeff Gordon, Johnson’s teammate, is second in the regular season points and has had a season almost as consistent as Harvick’s. But his big handicap is zero wins in 2010. If he doesn’t win in Richmond, Gordon will start the Chase with a 50-point deficit and, more important, a giant sense of frustration after coming up short in at least a half dozen races he could – and maybe should have – won.

The third-place driver at the moment is wunderkind Kyle Busch.  This 25-year-old driver has proven he can win races – he has three Cup wins so far this season – but he has yet to convince anyone he has the consistency to win a championship in NASCAR’s elite series.

The rest of the Chase field should probably all be considered dark horses.

Sixth-place Jeff Burton, another Childress driver, has had a solid, if unspectacular, season. Kurt Busch, in eighth, and Matt Kenseth, in ninth, have both won Cup titles and have the ability to run off a series of strong finishes that could keep them in the championship picture.

Greg Biffle, who holds down 11th place, is a capable driver who also could get hot. But he hasn’t had much good fortune lately.

That leaves the 12th-place drivers. At the moment, that’s Clint Bowyer, yet another Childress driver. He’s not quite safely in the Chase yet, although a 117-point lead over 13th-place Ryan Newman gives him pretty good odds of making it. And, if he does, Bowyer  will be the longest of long shots on the field.

Since the Chase format was adopted in 2004, the first 26 races of each season have been run with as much anticipation about who will make the Chase field as who will win the title.

But this is the time of year when it’s time to start thinking championship. And this one should be pretty darn entertaining.

Oh, by the way, I’m going with the chalk and picking Jimmie Johnson to win again. I’m going to keep picking JJ until somebody beats him. But this one is shaping up to be his toughest battle yet.

– Mike Harris can be reached at mharris@racintoday.com

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Wednesday, September 8 2010
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